Kadima hopefuls take stand on budget

Leading primary candidates Livni and Mofaz oppose each other during gov't's discussion of 2009 budget.

Olmert livni cabinet 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Olmert livni cabinet 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
With the battle of the budget heating up at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, it was not just reticent Shas ministers facing off against each other on the front lines but also the Kadima front-runners, who turned the struggle over the budget into a Kadima-primary debate. Kadima front-runners Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz sat side by side at the meeting, but from their positions on the budget, it was hard to tell that both ministers were from the same party. "I call on all of the candidates for the primaries - we are first and foremost ministers in this government and we all have an obligation to the economy," urged Livni at a meeting of Kadima ministers prior to the cabinet session. "We need to act in a statesmanlike manner and with responsibility regarding the budget and to broadcast stability without any relation to the Kadima primaries." Livni's support for the budget goes hand-in-hand with the support that she received from the budget's top advocate - Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On, one of the first party A-listers to announce his support for the foreign minister's campaign to lead Kadima. "Even if the budget decisions are not simple, I call on the candidates to withstand the temptations and make the decision, even when pressure groups stand before them - while clarifying that each one of us reserves the right to make changes according to their own preferences after the primaries," she added. Deals surrounding the budget before it is brought for Knesset approval during the upcoming winter session - which opens a month after the Kadima primaries - are likely to be among the most powerful items in the toolbox of whichever Kadima candidate ultimately has to build a coalition. Mofaz, who is still trailing Livni in the polls, took the opposite tack, joining with Labor and Shas ministers in calling for the budget debate to be delayed until after the Kadima primaries. Mofaz seemed determined Sunday to set himself apart from the Kadima crowd during the cabinet meeting. He not only criticized the budget, but was the sole Kadima minister to vote against the release of over 200 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Trailing in the polls behind the two front-runners, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told Israel Radio that he looked at the budget through a number of lenses - as a Kadima candidate, as a minister in the government and as the minister responsible for the Israel Police, whose cash flow took a beating in the proposed cuts. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, meanwhile, who is planning a gala election kick-off on Tuesday, voiced an opinion similar to Livni's while emphasizing that the Kadima leader-elect would need to be able to reexamine aspects of the budget following the primaries. Even without the fractiousness within Kadima, the budget faces an uphill struggle in the cabinet, with both Labor and Shas also threatening to maintain stiff opposition to social cuts. But the budget discussion was not the only arena in which the shadow of elections dominated the debate. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert weighed in on the ongoing verbal sparring between Livni and her likely rival for the premiership in general elections, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, defending Livni when Barak questioned the foreign minister's judgment on security matters. "A man wakes up in the morning, is bitten by a mosquito and decides to attack someone from Kadima. This time he chose Tzipi," Olmert said in a comment aimed at Barak during the weekly cabinet meeting. Labor was quick to offer a rebuttal to the prime minister's remarks. "Mr. Olmert won't be the one to teach us how to manage, [not] while the entire state is still licking the wounds of his 'mosquito bite' from two years ago, which led to one of the most failed wars in the history of the State of Israel," the Labor party said in a statement. "His real opinions of the Kadima candidates, and their negative opinions of him, are known to the entire public." Jpost.com staff contributed to this report.